Of all Southeast Asia’s great food cities, Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to locally as Saigon, can challenge any of its neighbors as the region’s best. With its range of incredible street food and vibrant flavors, Saigon’s local cuisine offers some of the most forward flavors found in Vietnam. Due to its historical significance, though, Saigon’s importance as a food capital expands far beyond its own time-tested dishes.
As the city where much of Vietnam’s population settled after the war, Saigon offers visitors a taste from every corner of the country, most of the time for just a few dollars, or Vietnamese dong. From street carts to sit-down restaurants, Saigon balances its own staples with influences from all over Vietnam, giving it a distinct culinary presence that’s hard to match.
The heat arrives early in Saigon, so once you’ve broken your first sweat of the day, head to Bánh Mì Hòa Mã for op la. A crazed fusion of east and west, Hòa Mã's version of op la is a dish made of crispy fried eggs, varied sliced breakfast meats and sautéed onions, along with a chewy baguette. Coupled with a cà phê đá—a Vietnamese iced coffee—this is the perfect way to start your day.
Whenever you see cops and taxi drivers lining up for food, you know you’re in for a treat. That’s the case with the Bánh Mì 37 Nguyen Trãi food cart, locally referred to by its makeshift address, which moves from a driveway to an alleyway to a sidewalk, depending on the time of day. The cart’s staff serves only one kind of bánh mì sandwich, and it’ll without a doubt be one of the best you have. Starting with a soft and chewy baguette made with a mix of rice and wheat flours, the bánh mì includes freshly grilled sausage patties, a fresh cucumber spear, cilantro, chile and a hoisin-infused sauce, all wrapped up in butcher paper.
When it comes to local lore and prestige, no one outshines The Lunch Lady. There’s no menu or organized process for ordering; you simply sit and devour whatever’s put in front of you. While the cooks change the offerings frequently, they’re known for their spring rolls, salads and noodle soups, which come with a range of toppings, from pork belly to squid to eggplant to okra. Once nothing more than a humble food cart, The Lunch Lady, which catapulted to fame after Anthony Bourdain paid it a visit on his former Travel Channel show, No Reservations, will be one of the tastiest meals you have in Saigon.
Another example of Saigon’s unmatched street food can be found at the corner of Lê Lợi and Nguyen Trung Truc, where a humble stand turns out the best bún thịt nướng you’ll eat on your trip. For barely $2, chow down on freshly grilled pork, crispy fried spring rolls, and vibrant pickled vegetables, coupled with fresh herbs and vermicelli noodles. Though this joint, which doesn’t have a menu or a name, can be hard to find—and even harder to find a seat at—no meal you eat in Saigon will be more worth the effort.
Saigon has a vast number of specialties that it can lay claim to, but it’s the city’s wide range of offerings from throughout Vietnam that makes it truly special. One of the best examples of this is Hồng Hạnh, a family-run restaurant focusing on cuisine from Huế, a city in central Vietnam. The menu covers all the former imperial capital’s greatest hits, but its real specialty is the bánh cuốn itself: steamed rice crepes rolled with white pepper and topped with steamed pork sausage and fried garlic. The tables are no-frills steel, and a multi-dish feast will cost you less than $4—total.
If you need a break from street food, Secret Garden, beloved by travelers and locals alike, will do the trick. Located atop an old factory and accessible only via an industrial stairwell that leads straight into the kitchen, the restaurant offers modernized takes on traditional Vietnamese dishes, like crab broth served with baby eggplant and black pepper spareribs, in a lush, lantern-lit setting. Go with a group and order a bunch of things to share—you’ll leave wishing you could truck home the leftovers in your carry-on.
Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.
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